Seven Things I’ve Learned About Playwriting

A few months ago, my friend Kate invited me to write a guest post for her blog.

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She’s created a series of guest posts where different writers reflect on 7 things they’ve learned about the disciplines they work in.

So here are 7 things I’ve learned about playwriting, originally written for Kate…

Thanks, Kate, for inviting me to write this guest blog. It’s been a fruitful experience, reflecting on what I’ve learned about writing plays. I’ve always loved writing. For years my focus was short stories, poems, and blogs. Whenever I had time or inspiration I’d scribble something new, in a meandering kind of way.

In 2013, I wrote my first script and something clicked. It felt like I’d found a home, writing-wise. Since then I’ve written 9 one-act stage plays, 3 short screenplays, 1 audio play, and I’ve written, narrated and co-produced 5 short films. I’m winner of the Kenneth Branagh Award for New Drama Writing, a FUSE playwright with Sheffield Crucible, member of Playwrights One development programme at West Yorkshire Playhouse, and a long-listed playwright for The Old Vic 12. I’ve had four plays produced by the Windsor Fringe Drama Award, Beach Hut Theatre Company and Stephen Joseph theatre with Scarborough libraries. Seven scripts have had rehearsed readings and development through Sheffield Crucible, Stephen Joseph theatre, Script Yorkshire, and Springboard Scriptwriters. I’m writer and narrator for SubSeaTV, an award-winning wildlife filmmaking team, and I’ve won and placed in two short screenplay competitions.

So what I have learned since I wrote my first script? Well, a lot. It’s been a roller coaster of highs and lows, successes and failures. Tears have flowed for rejections as well as celebrations. I’ve dug deep into my reserves of courage and think I hit the bottom a few times. But perhaps my courage barrel gets deeper the more I dig…

I’m not going to attempt to cover how to write a play. I’m still learning and there are many experts who’ve written helpful guides to playwriting (I’ve included a few links below). Instead, let me take you on a wander through my deepest, hardest, and most joyful lessons.

Here are seven things I’ve learned about playwriting.

It’s all about story structure
Even the most experimental plays have a beginning, middle, and end. Without structure, stories can’t provide audiences with the things they expect and deserve: order from chaos, new insight into the world, or the opportunity to walk in another’s shoes then return to their own lives with fresh eyes.

I’ve learned that story structure is hard to do well, but it’s not optional. Without structure, my stories fall over. With it, my stories can fly. I highly recommend John Yorke’s Into the Woods for further reading.

Playwriting is collaborative
The script is a blueprint that invites creative contribution – from directors, actors, designers, technical teams, and composers. There’s a natural and healthy tension between creative control and collaboration.

I’ve learned when I write in a way that communicates my vision yet leaves space for others’ imagination, the best version of an idea has the chance to bubble up. All my scripts include notes that help express my vision for the piece along with this statement: “actors are welcome to ignore these notes.”

“Scriptwriting is not about the words on the page…it’s about mapping behaviour”
I borrow this quote from the brilliant playwright Simon Stephens. When I heard him say this, my gut flipped with the truth of it. It’s easy to get seduced by wordsmithing (I did – I still do) but I’ve learned the real work of a playwright is not crafting pretty sentences; it’s exploring what it means to be human – mapping behaviour. Take a character. What does she want? What’s stopping her getting it? What does she do to get what she wants? To whom? What are the consequences? How does she handle these consequences? Then what does she do? And so on…

It’s all about serving actors – with great characters, dialogue, subtext, and action
The way playwrights map behaviour is through dialogue and stage directions. What is said? More importantly, what is not said? I’ve learned that actors will find the subtext and leak truth to the audience through their body language, tone of voice, or just a glance. Great playwriting leaves bags of space for brilliant actors to do their work.

Finish it. Get it on its feet
Neil Gaiman said, “Whatever it takes to finish things, finish. You will learn more from a glorious failure than you ever will from something you never finished.”

So true. One of the reasons I’ve learned so much since 2013 is that I’ve written, finished, and produced lots of short pieces. Each piece has taught me something new, just by getting it over the line. Putting the script into actors’ hands and watching an audience respond has taught me even more. I reckon at least 50% of my learning happens after a piece of work is finished. I used to rob myself of this learning by not finishing projects.

Writing plays is a vehicle for my growth and development
Probably the most important thing I’ve learned is that writing stories makes me a better person. As I create characters, plonk them into challenging situations, ramp up the tension and see what they do, I imagine myself in these situations too. I understand other views of the world a bit better. Stories are one of the places where empathy can be born.

To quote Seth Godin (blog 30/7/16), “Empathy is difficult. If you believed what he believes, you’d do precisely what he’s doing. Think about that for a second. People act based on the way they see the world… Understanding someone else’s story is hard… but it’s worth the effort.”

So after all that, what’s the seventh thing I’ve learnt?
Write another play. There’s always more for me to learn.

Links to more playwriting info:

The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting (10 lesson plans written by industry experts).

Bruntwood prize writing resources.

Story structure: John Yorke.

Simon Stephens on how playwriting’s not about words (watch from 38:43).

Seth Godin’s blog.

2 thoughts on “Seven Things I’ve Learned About Playwriting”

  1. Thanks for your inspiring tips. Your sentence `I used to rob myself of this learning by not finishing projects.´ is quite an eye opener and rings so true.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post, Jackie. Yes, I left a lot of learning on the table with half-finished projects in the past.

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